Escaping to Lavender at a Family Farm on the North Fork

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A visitor at Lavender by the Sea pauses to relax. Lori Hawkins photos

The moment Chanan Rozenbaum steps out of his car, he can immediately smell the flowers at Lavender by the Bay.

Except it is only mid-May. And they aren’t even in bloom yet.

The year-round floral aroma is the result of 17 acres planted with 20 French and English lavender varieties — more than 80,000 plants in total at the East Marion farm, founded in 2002 by Mr. Rozenbaum’s parents, Serge and Susan.

Over the last two decades, Lavender by the Bay has blossomed into a viral sensation, the farm’s vice president said, not the least bit surprised. Although it operates as a commercial business, the farm is also a must-needed refuge — for both him and the public — and a long overdue expansion is currently in the works.

“Today, as a society, we are all connected to our phones and coming out to the farm enables people to disconnect,” he said. “To sit in our fields is a pretty relaxing, romantic experience. You can hear the wind blowing, you can hear the bees buzzing and, visually, it’s a sight to be seen.”

This year, Serge Rozenbaum estimates the blooming season will begin right around June 20, the lavender in all its glory through the harvest, which typically falls at the end of July.

“It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of patience. You have to keep time in perspective,” Serge Rozenbaum said. “Whatever you do today, you’re going to see results the following years. But this is what life in farming is all about. You need to be able to control your mind power and your decisions. It’s fun.”

Born and raised in Paris, Serge Rozenbaum found his green thumb during the childhood summers he would spend tending to a herd of cows in the South of France. It was the 1950s, but there, it might as well have been the 1800s, he said, living on a farm with no heat, no running water and, of course, no television.

“As a kid, I used to find ways to keep busy,” he said. “It was very, very unique — very special. It was very enriching.”

At age 18, he moved to Israel to work on a kibbutz, where he learned about drip irrigation and met a nice girl from the Bronx, named Susan, in 1969. “The French were a little exotic,” she recalled. “And I was the American with long straight hair, and he found meexotic.”

They spent four months in Jerusalem and eight months on the kibbutz, living and working in the farming community before she returned to the United States to finish her psychology degree with a minor in education. He remained in Israel to serve for a year in the army and moved back to France to join the youth movement, until they both decided to relocate to Israel and join another kibbutz — together. A year later, they were married.

By day, he worked in the apple orchards, specializing in agriculture and drip irrigation, while she taught English as a foreign language. They started a family and, after 10 years, returned to New York with their sons, Micha and Chanan.

“One summer, we went with my friend to Montauk to camp and, on the way back, we went through Shelter Island to the North Fork, and we’re talking about 1987,” Serge Rozenbaum said. “That was the area that I was looking for, exactly my dreams — farmland and the sound, the bay, water on three sides. We fell in love with the North Fork.”

A bee pauses on a lavender flower.

They bought a small property in Southold and put up an even smaller house on the dune, he recalled, installing a drip system for the lavender he decided to plant there. It reminded him of the flowers he would buy for his mother from a French farmer and his donkey in Paris — and it was one of the only plants that would take to the sandy, semi-arid soil.

Within two years, the front yard and the backyard were overflowing with blossoms.

“People would come visit us and we’d hand them scissors and we’d say, ‘Take whatever you want,’” Susan Rozenbaum said. “Then we tried putting a little table at the end of our driveway with very simple sachets, flower arrangements and a little pot for money. We’d go to the beach, come back and there would be money. That’s where it all started.”

They purchased the East Marion land in 2002 and began the farm gradually, Serge Rozenbaum said, planting lavender acre by acre, and variety by variety — experimenting as he went.

“When we started, it was more a dream,” he said. “It was a fear that somebody would take the idea altogether. So we slowly started. The first two acres we planted some lavender, and the following year, when we came after the winter, we found that the field was dead. All of the lavender plants were dead. And I realized the house in Southold, which was sitting on the dune, and the land in East Marion — 10 miles away — was completely different.”

The clay he discovered in the soil was the killer, he said. While lavender thrives in stressful conditions, it still needs to breathe.

“The North Fork is not Provence, but I didn’t take no for an answer,” he said. “We found ways to make it work. I had a backhoe remove the clay and move up some sand, and eventually we made it work. But we still have 10, 20 percent of the lavender that’s dying every year that needs to be replaced.”

The annual losses have paved a hard road for the farm, Chanan Rozenbaum said, and every year is a search for the correct concoction of lavender varieties that will allow for the acreage to survive in full.

“One year, one variety will flourish, and then the next year, that variety is decimated,” he said. “It’s pretty frustrating, but that’s the life of farming. It’s finding out what the problem is and trying to come up with a solution. And you just have to push forward and keep on trying.”

And push forward they do, much to Susan Rozenbaum’s astonishment. She has watched her son step into a leadership role, and her husband take on more challenges, including beekeeping — the source of the farm’s signature lavender honey, which they sell in the farm stand, along with essential oil, mists and sprays, bunches of flowers and, of course, the matriarch’s signature sachets, known for their soothing and relaxing benefits. Susan’s sewing assistants, Elizabeth and Kunsang, help her create the signature sachets.

“Serge is amazing. He is tireless,” she said. “The effort he puts into making sure the fields are in good condition and his plants and his beehives, it’s just … I have to sit back sometimes and say to myself, ‘Gee, this is ours. I’m not looking at something that belongs to somebody else. This is ours. This is our creation.’ So it’s all pretty incredible.”

The farm owners are in contract to buy 30 acres of land on the northwest corner of Route 25 and Manor Road in Calverton, opposite the Splish Splash entrance, although planting half the property has been long underway — with mixed success.

“The soil is great. It’s exactly what we need. However, it’s very windy there,” Chanan Rozenbaum said. “Last year, we planted about 10,000 plants and, in February, we looked at the field and they were doing great. Came back in March and we lost a large chunk of the lavender. We’re standing there and the winds were just howling, and we feel this is a fault of windburn.

“So now, it’s ‘how do you address wind?’ You have to put up wind-stops with trees,” he continued. “Getting a tree to grow 50 to 100 feet takes years, so you have to do your research. What’s a tree that grows well in that area, what’s a tree that grows fast? Finding solutions to the problems is fulfilling, as well as working with my family. It’s better to work with your family than to work for someone else.”

Sacks of freshly-harvested lavender.

During blooming season, it’s all hands on deck. Micha Rozenbaum lends a hand in the fields when he’s not chasing his son, Sammy, or their dog, Willy. His wife, Jen, crafts a small selection of lavender culinary products and their daughter, Talia, runs the cash register. Chanan Rozenbaum’s wife, Miriam, is the official product tester when she isn’t busy raising their son, future Lavender by the Bay helper, Jonah, while their dog, Linus, greets customers with a friendly bark.

They all do it for the lavender.

“Lavender is a beautiful plant,” Serge Rozenbaum said. “It’s always said that lavender is from heaven because you have the color that’s unique. You have the motion — when you look at lavender in bloom with the wind, it’s like a wave. You have the smell; as soon as you get to the lavender field, you can smell the lavender.

“When you smell it, it goes straight to your brain,” he continued. “There’s no filter and it does impact your wellbeing and your insides. I know by experience: When people come to the field and you talk to them, they go in and when they come back, they are transformed. They talk to you in a very human way; they’re not here to impress you with how much money they have. The human level is very rare and unique, and I think that’s the success of lavender.”

Lavender by the Bay is located at 7540 Main Road in East Marion. Before visiting, be sure to check for bloom updates on social media. Admission is $7 on weekdays, $9 on weekends and holidays, and free for children age 12 and under.

For more information, visit lavenderbythebay.com.

In a field of lavender at Lavender by the Bay.

More Than a Pretty Purple Plant

Widely regarded as a flower with powerful benefits, studies have shown that lavender essential oil can help with insomnia, hair loss, stress, anxiety and even post-operative pain.

At Lavender by the Bay, the East Marion farm stand carries an assortment of lavender products, from aromatherapy and culinary lavender to loose dried flowers and bunches.

Co-founder Susan Rozenbaum and her son, vice president Chanan Rozenbaum, each have their personal favorites — most available year-round, though the seasonal items are worth the wait.

Mom’s Lavender Sachets, starting at $10

“They’re my little ‘works of art,’” Susan said with a laugh. “I do all the sachets, so I have fun finding a fabric that I can somehow incorporate into a sachet. Eighty to 90% of the sachets are made from scratch, so that gives me a lot of pride.”

Lavender Pillow Mist, $18

“It’s one of our most popular items,” Chanan said. “It’s all natural and the smell will dissipate over time. I think the people can really connect with that. I feel like there’s a push for natural aromatherapy today, and the pillow mist really does that.”

Lavender Essential Oil and Hydrosol, $13 and $10

“When we make our essential oil, we steam distill it. So we essentially take a still of lavender and boil water underneath it,” Chanan explained. “The oil is attracted to the steam and the steam then goes through a condenser, where it’s cooled. Oil and water don’t mix, so they separate. The oil is the essential we sell. The water is the hydrosol, and that is very refreshing on the skin, especially on hot summer days. And it has more of an earthy scent to it, rather than a strong lavender fragrance.”

Lavender Honey, Seasonal limited stock

“You can’t remove the honey from the hive until it’s capped, until the combs are sealed,” Susan explained. “It’s up to the bees and Mother Nature, because we don’t know when that moment will be that we can remove it. If we remove it too early, it influences the taste in a negative way. So we really have to make sure.

“Sometimes, if Serge is arriving with the combs, he’ll gather people around the truck and offer them a taste right out of the comb. For city people, it’s something they’ve never experienced before.”

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